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Exploring spectacular south-central Utah

By: Dina Mishev The Washington Post
June 3, 2018 Updated: June 3, 2018 at 4:30 am
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Lower Calf Creek Falls at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. (Photo for The Washington Post by Dina Mishev)

Like most passages in south-central Utah, Lower Muley Twist Canyon is heavenly and hellish for anyone curious about what's around the next corner. One can hike down the canyon in Capitol Reef National Park for 12 miles and turn at least three times as many corners.

I'm in this part of Utah because it's still snowing where I live in northwest Wyoming and, in late March, the temperatures here are in the 60s and 70s. I'm somewhat familiar with the area, but there are plenty of hikes and back-road drives I haven't done. And one of my favorite restaurants, Hell's Backbone Grill, is here.

The 12-mile Lower Muley Twist endeavor piques my curiosity. I don't have the fitness to do it in a day, but I don't trust that this will make me turn around. So I make a 6:15 p.m. reservation at the farm-to-table restaurant in the Mormon town of Boulder (pop. about 250). Hell's Backbone Grill serves "Four Corners cuisine," drawing from Mormon pioneer recipes, Puebloan cultural dishes, cowboy fare and whatever grows on its farm at 7,000 feet in elevation.

If I hike 2 miles down the canyon from the trailhead on the Burr Trail Scenic Backway and then retrace my route, I'll have just enough time to drive back to Boulder, check in at the Boulder Mountain Lodge - the only "downtown" lodging - and shower before dinner.

Forsaking corners

Mine is the only car in the small trailhead parking lot. The trail immediately descends about 40 feet through Utah junipers and onto the canyon floor, a dry creek bed. I'm quickly dwarfed by undulating red sandstone formations. The canyon lives up to its name: Every twist reveals another twist. And every corner brings a surprise.

One corner delivers a section of narrows, as the canyon walls suddenly come together and the sandy path shrinks to a width of 20 feet. Around the next corner is a "weeping wall," where seeping minerals make the otherwise vermilion, 500-foot-tall sandstone wall look as if it is crying soot-black tears. Then comes a corner that is itself a corner: an undercut, 300-foot-long, 90-degree bend in the canyon that, when Lower Muley Creek floods, is obviously the scene of much violence. The bottom 15 feet of the sandstone bears the scars: holes, dents, dings, scratches and scrapes.

Before I know it, I am 1 mile past my planned turnaround and have a blister on my left foot. But I'm not ready to reverse course. Hell's Backbone Grill, like anyplace else for hundred of miles, doesn't care if I shower before dinner.

I round two more corners before I realize I'll miss my meal if I don't turn and run to the car. But the extra corners are worth it. The last opens into a blocky rock garden at the base of Zionlike sheer cliffs that appear illuminated from within. I first think my polarized sunglasses are playing tricks on me. But without them, the cliffs have every bit as much glow.

Driving back to town on the Burr Trail Scenic Backway, a 66-mile paved and dirt road between Boulder and Lake Powell's Bullfrog Marina, I don't have time to take photos. Near the start of the drive, I see Peekaboo Arch to the west. Next comes a high desert forest of piñons and Utah junipers. Some of the junipers may be almost 1,000 years old, but I don't think any are more than 20 feet tall. From about A.D. 400 to 1200, the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in this area used both of these species as food. I open my front windows so the junipers can infuse my car with their sweetly resinous fragrance.

I exit Capitol Reef National Park and enter Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and its 1 million tangled acres of sinuous slot canyons, mesas and cliffs. (It was 1.9 million till President Donald Trump cut it last December.)

This is some of the country's harshest landscape, but upon entering it, the Burr Trail goes from dirt and gravel to pavement, albeit without centerlines or shoulders.

Not taking photos in 7-mile Long Canyon, with sheer golden and dark sandstone walls stretching hundreds of feet high, takes more self-discipline than turning around in Lower Muley Twist Canyon. But passing the white sandstone dunes at 6 p.m., 6 miles from the lodge and restaurant, I make a brief photo stop. The clouds, like overstuffed down pillows, split the evening sun into biblical beams.

You might think no restaurant could be worth a popped blister and speeding through the Burr Trail's landscape. You'd be wrong. I talked myself into missing the surprises around more Lower Muley Twist corners because the constantly changing menu at Hell's Backbone Grill is a guaranteed good surprise. I've eaten there four times before.

Killer views, meals

When President Bill Clinton established the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, it was big news. The grill opened in 2000.

At the turn of the millennium, the U.S. had about 100 national monuments, but the Rocky Mountain West had only one woman- and chef-owned restaurant operating its own farm. In 2002, it made national news by obtaining Boulder's first liquor license. On a map, I found Boulder in the booniest of boonies, off Utah 12 and on the way to nowhere. The nearest airport was 41/2 hours away.

Someday I'd get there.

More than a decade later, in 2012, I came more because of Utah Scenic Byway 12 than the restaurant. It might be a road to nowhere, but it is a gorgeous road to nowhere, one of only 29 All-American Roads. Its 124 miles pass through two national parks, three state parks, the Dixie National Forest and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It sounded like the perfect road trip for my first new car.

My strongest memories from that trip are of the restaurant's and Utah 12's "stars." At the former, it was the spicy meatloaf, which was every bit as good as the reviews claimed. On the latter, it was the hogback, a 2-mile road flanked by sheer drop-offs of more than 1,000 feet.

I have returned to Utah 12 and Boulder several times. I now search for subtler joys, though the hogback recently was repaved and the restaurant has gained more recognition. It has been named Utah's best restaurant several times and, last year, co-owners and co-chefs Blake Spalding and Jen Castle were semifinalists for a James Beard Award for best chef in the Southwest. Also last year, Spalding and Castle published their second cookbook, "This Immeasurable Place: Food and Farming from the Edge of Wilderness." Former secretary of the interior Bruce Babbitt wrote the foreword.

The restaurant's 61/2-acre farm, Blaker's Acres, grows about 23,000 pounds of produce a year, keeps more than 150 chickens and has about 150 fruit trees, including five kinds of apricot trees. So the menu continually changes. Of those I'd seen, I wanted to eat at least half of what was on each.

This evening, dining alone, choosing is excruciating. How to pick between goat-cheese fondue and a steamed artichoke served with lemon aioli made from eggs laid by Blaker's Acres' own chickens? A family of five seated next to me puts in their entire order before I settle on the artichoke. And that's just the appetizer.

The spicy chipotle meatloaf entree is one of the few constant menu items, but I order a New York strip steak. The beef is from a cow that grazed in Grand Staircase-Escalante.

It might be my imagination, fueled by driving through the forest, but when I begin to eat the steak, I taste notes of piñon and juniper.

The next morning, I drive my favorite section of Utah 12, the 28 miles between Boulder and Escalante, the largest city around with about 800 residents.

The hogback is here.

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